This post comes to you from one of our own users, Wendy Alas. Wendy is a documentary photographer based in Chicago, IL and a Visual Journalism/Photojournalism graduate from the prestigious Brooks Institute of Photography. She first discovered her passion self-portraiture in high school and has agreed to share her experience and love for the art form.
Someone once told me that self-portraits are mostly for other people to see you for you, and others often say self-portraiture is a form of self-expression; to me it’s both and much more. I’ve been taking self-portraits for about ten years now. I began in my very first black and white photography class in High School when I was sixteen. I was part of a club called Gallery 37 in Chicago and was able to take an SLR camera home loaded with Tri-X Pan 35mm film. I didn’t have a tripod at the time so I improvised by using a table and holding the camera still by placing books around it. This is a method that I don’t recommend anyone to do! At that time, after only living in the U.S. for two years, I really had no idea where I belonged. I was often seen as a bookworm for spending my lunch breaks in the library or in the dark room developing black and white photographs. After taking my very first self-portrait I realized that I wasn’t the plain girl I often felt perceived as, but that I can actually be a good subject to make pleasant photographs. I did it for my own entertainment, and at the time I didn’t understand the effect it had on me. It actually gave me a boost of confidence, knowing that I could take my own pictures and that in fact, I looked good. I decided to pursue photojournalism in college, since self-portraiture has only been a hobby to me. Today I make a living as a documentary photographer, and even through my personal art of self-portraiture, I make it a goal to still take story-telling images.
While all my self-portraits may not represent me at my best, I have confidence that they portray emotion, even more emotion than I imagine to appear within the setting. Self-portraiture really is a way to express what I feel, whether it’s sadness, happiness, love, romance, passion, bravery, etc. Through these photographs, I’ve also come to realize certain aspects of my persona: a withdrawn young woman, but with a need for attention? Or simply, love. It is mainly a way to reconnect with myself, and to scratch a restless itch that sometimes consumes me, but perhaps is also a way to tell the world… look at me, I am human, I am real. It’s a chance to project something that you may not see in person, for instance, an exotic alluring persona, a restless woman, a fearless and free spirit yearning to fly away from reality or ready to dive into this complex world as with no reservations. This makes me confident.
In the summer of 2007 I had marked nearly three years in a relationship that began during my last year of college in California, after receiving my degree I moved back to Chicago and due to the distance, and our fickle plans of being together again, I felt to be growing apart by mundane distractions. I was very confused and sad but at the same time I felt empowered to stand-alone. This is perhaps one of my favorite self-portraits because not only was a beautiful day to shoot outside, but also I am determined and ready to move on. When I see this photograph now, I remind myself of the way I felt then and it really does help! I shot this image outside in my backyard under the shade, I used a Westcott bouncing reflector to fill light on my left, 50mm lens, a tripod, and Sekonic light meter to obtain right exposure.
About a year ago I was involved with a wonderful man, a traveling cameraman. We traveled, we had photographic adventures and there was a connection I had never experienced in my life. I was inspired. At the beginning of the relationship, he was on a documentary adventure in the upper amazons of Peru; I took this photograph to show anticipation, because that’s exactly how I felt. I couldn’t wait for his return. Everything was so new and fresh in our relationship. The window light in my room was perfect, and there is no better time to make self-portraits than after washing your car and while doing laundry. I used a tripod, a Sekonic light meter, shot all manual and used the timer on the camera for the shutter release.
Self-portraiture is actually a bit ironic sometimes, because realistically, most photographers are afraid to step in front of the camera. It takes trust and confidence to feel comfortable being photographed. From personal experience, I have found it so much easier to direct myself than others to pose for me. There’s an unhurried energy to know that there’s nobody behind that lens, looking at you being distracted by your attributes or flaws. I think as women, we tend to care to look attractive, but as a documentary photographer I feel it’s also important to show emotion and tell a story. It is more captivating and really makes your audience wonder what goes through your mind.
Needless to say, there are a lot of technical aspects that go into making these images. It is important to follow rules, but I believe that, occasionally, when you break the rules you come out with better photos. So I recommend you follow your own instinct.
Self-portraiture is an art form and though it can be portrayed as an act of narcissism or delusions of grandeur, it takes creativity, patience, some confidence and practice. I think every photographer should try doing it, and have fun!